Back in 1989, Jay Weiner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote a long profile of Killebrew and his troubles in the nearly 15 years since he had left major league baseball. There’s no real need to detail all of the financial mishaps he had over that time, but they included partnering with a fraudulent real estate developer in Rancho Mirage, California, problems with an Oregon car dealership, and multiple loan defaults.
Reggie Jackson, one of the people who had gone to court with Killebrew over loan repayments, said: “It is a very sophisticated business. If you’re a novice you can be taken to the cleaners. People like Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew who are not in that business can be taken advantage of because we come from baseball, where everything is black and white. You hit a home run because it went over the fence. You hit .270 because you have 27 hits out of 100 at-bats. Car dealerships are different. Most people are not afraid to take advantage of you. They figure you’re Reggie Jackson, you’re Harmon Killebrew , you’ve got it and they want some of it.”
Killebrew had also separated from his longtime wife, Elaine, who grew up with him in Payette, Idaho. Here are some lines from Weiner’s profile:
In 1976, his baseball income stopped, but Killebrew remembers his exit from the field as smooth. His first job was as a color commentator on televised Twins games. He received his securities license and became a partner in a Boise insurance and financial planning firm with former Idaho congressman Ralph Harding.
Killebrew said he practically welcomed the end of his playing days. “The last couple years that I played my knees hurt so bad it was painful to play. That’s why these old-timers games are so difficult – because it hurts. People forget that’s the reason we quit playing – because we couldn’t play anymore. I’d had my day and my day was over.”
Elaine Killebrew, who has known Harmon since both were 12 years old and growing up in Payette, remembers Harmon ‘s passage from field to office differently. Nine months after the cheers ended, he reached 40 and she noticed a change.
“He was not handling (turning 40) well,” she said. “He admitted to me he was really having a tough time. He had a tough time leaving baseball, too, even though he was having pain in his body. He didn’t want to leave baseball. There was silence, a sort of underlying hostility (toward) everything, the children, me. He became noncommunicative.”
He was facing his first financial crisis. A cattle ranch he bought toward the end of his career failed. Elaine said the family was forced to sell some of its investments. At the same time, she said, the house they were building on the hill wound up costing about $180,000, twice as much as expected.
“He had that feeling, ‘I was successful in baseball. I can do it again,’ ” Elaine said. But her husband seemed a candidate for business failure. “He’s always been the type of person whose niceness gets him used. He didn’t want anybody to be displeased with him.”
His reputation as a good fellow and sports hero might have attracted business partners, customers and bankers, but it took its toll on the Killebrew family, she said.
“We couldn’t be left alone. It was difficult because his celebrity took him away from his children. I don’t think it’s good to put people on a pedestal and worship them as a hero. I don’t think it’s good for the person they make the hero.” . . .
Now he confronts impatient banks in Minnesota and Idaho for defaulting on loans. Among his creditors are Midwest Savings Association and Marquette Bank, controlled by Twins owner Carl Pohlad.
He is the defendant in a lawsuit in California, brought by former star outfielder Reggie Jackson, for failing to pay a loan Jackson co-signed. That suit is on hold because Killebrew and Jackson have worked out a payback plan.
Jackson said, “Harmon’s been at the bottom of the pit and he’s climbing out of the hole. All he has left is his word and he wants to keep it.”
Former Twins owner Griffith said Killebrew owes him $100,000 for a loan Griffith gave “three or four years ago” to cover Killebrew’s taxes.
Griffith said, “It’s a sad situation.”
Yet Harmon Clayton Killebrew, the Minnesota sports hero, remains “Killer,” your basic nice guy. At 6 feet tall and 197 pounds, he’s 23 pounds lighter than during his final season, and two pounds heavier than when the Washington Senators signed him 35 years ago. Killebrew is warm to strangers who simply want to shake his hand. He’s remembered fondly enough that television viewers from across the country paid $149.92 each to buy autographed bats during a home shopping network sale in July.
Killebrew seeks no sympathy. In 1974, when “Harmon Killebrew Day” was held at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, he refused gifts, calling them “embarrassing.” Instead, $10,000 was raised for charity.
“My feeling then was the people didn’t owe me anything,” he said. He frowns at the thought of $10 checks pouring in from supporters. “I don’t want that sort of thing. I think I’m getting help from the people that can help me right now.”
“No matter what, I’ve always been an optimistic person,” Killebrew said. “I’m not a quitter. All my career I went through a lot of physical adversity, injuries. It’s in my nature to be a battler.”
“It’s been a living hell. You have a lot of those days when you feel you’re at the bottom,” Harmon Killebrew said. “You get to feeling that sometimes you’re out on that island by yourself. I don’t feel anger, more sometimes frustration, sadness is another, loneliness is another one. . . . Stressful? That’s an understatement.”
He is determined to pay off his debts and has new projects, most of which he won’t detail, to “turn things around.”
“I want to say that maybe I’ve made some wrong decisions but I’m still an honorable person and I intend to take care of all of my obligations.”
He is the fifth most prolific home run hitter in history. Nothing in Killebrew ‘s 22-year playing career matched the pressure he faces today.
“In baseball, you pack your uniform in the clubhouse after a ballgame and you see it hanging up in your locker when you get to your next city,” Killebrew said. “You pack your bag and your bag gets in your room when you get to the hotel. They pay for your meals, your hotel. When you’re out and you’re strictly doing it on your own, it’s a different situation.”
I’ve reprinted the above paragraphs to give an example of the gap that exists between the heroic superstar player we see out there on the field and the life that man lives, especially once his playing days are over. Also, to give a broader picture of who Killebrew was: more than just a nice guy slugger who regularly hit the ball 400+ feet. An Associated Press article on his death stated that “he became a successful businessman in insurance, financial planning and car sales,” and said “Killebrew and Nita had nine children,” without mentioning his five children with his first wife, Elaine. We shouldn’t simply gloss over and erase the less heroic details of his life in order to fabricate a false image of Killebrew as a man who never made a mistake. He apparently paid off his debts between 1989 and 2011, and was indeed a nice guy, but he and quite a few other former playing greats have made significant mistakes and had very deep problems in their post-baseball careers.
When I went looking for material about the man, I also came across this item from the St. Paul Pioneer Press of May 26, 1990, on Killebrew’s recent operation: “Hall of famer Harmon Killebrew underwent surgery for a ruptured esophagus and a collapsed lung Friday afternoon in Phoenix. No information regarding his condition was available. It was the second time Killebrew, 53, has undergone surgery on his esophagus.”
I don’t know much about whether chronic problems in an organ of the body can leave you susceptible to cancer in the same organ later in life, but it does not seem a coincidence that Killebrew would eventually die from esophagus cancer. In July 1993, the Star Tribune covered his return to the Metrodome “for the first time since 1988, when he covered the Twins as a broadcaster. As he wandered familiar corridors and waved to old friends, he looked healthy and happy.
“He has had plenty of problems with his health and finances in recent years, but yesterday he reflected on better days, and the chance to relive them that Sunday’s Upper Deck Heroes Game at the Dome will grant him.
“Killebrew has been plagued by ulcers and various problems with his esophagus and underwent surgery last winter that had some friends fearing for his life.”
Finally, here are some of Killebrew’s remembrances, as told to the Star Tribune in 1999, of playing ball for the Twins in the 1960s:
“I have to tell you I was apprehensive about going to Minnesota. I had played in the American Association for about a month, and because Washington did not have a Triple A farm club, I played for Indianapolis, the White Sox club. We had made a swing through Minneapolis and St. Paul. I knew it was pretty chilly. I really took to the warmer weather in Washington, and the lifestyle of living in the nation’s capital. Plus, we were starting to become a good club and I thought the fans deserved it after all they had been through. I can’t say I was real excited about moving.”
“I quickly grew to like it. Pretty much right away I started hitting the ball good, and I loved the fans because they’re down-to-earth Midwestern people. They like their baseball, but they’re not so rabid like they can be in Fenway Park or in New York. And I had the chance to play with some great guys on some very good teams. What’s amazing to me is every time I go back how much people, even the young people, seem to know about me. It was a wonderful place to play.
“I think it’s true that the home run hitter holds a special place for fans. To me it’s the ultimate in baseball – to drive the ball out of the park. Actually, I remember going to other parks, like Fenway, when we had me, Bob Allison, Don Mincher, so many guys who could hit the ball out, and people would give us a standing ovation in batting practice.
“I am very happy to have played when I did. I call it the golden years of baseball. Look at the great players – Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks, Stan Musial. To just be a part of that time is special to me.”